"Who's Afraid of Jasper Johns?"

Art becomes a real fake.

Installation view

Installation view Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

On February 28, 1974, a 30-year-old man walked into the third-floor galleries of the Museum of Modern Art and proceeded to deface Pablo Picasso’s Guernica by spray-painting KILL ALL LIES across it in red, foot-high letters. The New York Times account of the incident is illuminating, describing the man as “enraged,” and adding that he’d been living in “a $15-a-week room at the George Washington Hotel at Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street”—details usually associated with the aloof neighbor who becomes a presidential assassin. But the perpetrator wasn’t some lone gunman; although MoMA’s policy was (and still is) to never report acts of vandalism, lest they invite copycats, he’d arranged to have a friend alert the Associated Press of his undertaking. “Call the curator,” he reportedly shouted as guards grabbed him. “I am an artist.”

His name was Tony Shafrazi, and rather than being confined to a mental hospital for the rest of his days (the fate of many despoilers of masterpieces), he became a hugely successful art dealer, profiting from the careers of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf. This ironic turn of events is the inspiration for the current show at Shafrazi’s capacious Chelsea gallery, even though it’s titled “Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?” Indeed, the arrest photo of the young Tony—worthy of Weegee, with its contrast of the former’s blank, baby-smooth countenance alongside the expressions of the police—graces the exhibition poster. But the show isn’t directly about Shafrazi, or Johns for that matter: It is a deeply cynical meditation on the deeply cynical nature of the contemporary art market.

Although nominally a group exhibit of works by artists oldish (Francis Bacon, Francis Picabia) and newish (Lily Van Der Stokker, Rirkrit Tiravanija), “Who’s Afraid?” is really a self-reflexive installation “conceived” by artist Urs Fischer and dealer Gavin Brown. It’s certainly in keeping with Fischer’s efforts to date, which have involved committing structural travesties to gallery spaces—blowing holes through walls or craters into floors—at no small expense. Here, the approach is far more decorous. The gallery has been sheathed in a trompe l’oeil replica of itself. The organizers had photos taken of the previous show—a gathering of gallery staples Haring, Basquiat, Scharf and Donald Baechler—including images of the space itself. Nothing, it seems, went undocumented: the ceiling, the doorjambs, the windows, even Shafrazi’s security guards. All were recorded and transformed into life-size photomurals standing in for “real life.”

The effect is uncanny: Entering the space, you’re absolutely convinced at first that the exhibit indulges in the curatorial heresy of hanging one work on top of another. Thus, a real Picabia graces the center of a fake Baechler, while works by Richard Prince and Sue Williams create an artful sandwich out of a faux Basquiat. An otherwise conventional survey is thus transformed into a sort of reenactment of Shafrazi’s jejune assault on Guernica. And much as Shafrazi sometimes spoke of “collaborating” with Picasso, Fischer, with Brown’s help, communes with art history to offer an homage from one bad-boy artist to another.

So, how does Johns fit in? In Three Flags (1958), he stacked successive canvases on top of each other. But more to the point, Johns based his entire practice on the trompe l’oeil style of late-19th-century American painters like William Harnett and John F. Peto. Embracing their ambiguity, if not their illusionism, Johns created a pictorial space with which he could smother the certainties of Abstract Expressionism like a thick wool blanket. With its sealed windows, harsh fluorescent lighting and plush showroom carpeting (courtesy of artist Rudolph Stingle), “Who’s Afraid” seems similarly airless, a corporate void for marketing trangressive acts and their attendant associations with youth. Visitors, in fact, are greeted by Rob Pruitt’s fountain cascading down Shafrazi’s long, cardiac-arresting front stairs, its waters spiked with 2,000 milligrams of Viagra. Like the show as a whole, Pruitt’s falls are a joke, albeit a bitter one with no resolution.

Shafrazi’s own motivations for his youthful indiscretion remain hazy. He called it a political protest, but by 1974, the expiration date for such activities had long past. His friends described him as having been temporarily deranged, yet he had the presence of mind, or calculation, to use spray paint that could be easily removed. His target was quickly restored, and eventually repatriated to Spain, where it’s on view at the Prado amidst stringent security. Shafrazi’s fate since then, and maybe even the art world’s, is a lot like Guernica’s: cleaned up and placed under bulletproof glass.

Tony Shafrazi Gallery, through Saturday, Jul 12